There have been more cats with rabies than dogs in the US in recent years. Rabies has significance because it is a public health concern as well as being 100% fatal in unprotected pets.
What is rabies?
Rabies is a fatal viral disease of cats, dogs, and wild animals. All warm-blooded animals are susceptible to this disease including human beings. When most people hear the word rabies they think of the classic rabid dog image. However, according to the Center for Disease Control, the number of cases in cats is on the increase, and cats have the highest level of rabies of all domesticated animals. The highest incidence of cat rabies cases is in areas where wildlife rabies cases are on the increase.
Feral cats and domestic cats which are kept outside have the most contact with the wildlife species commonly infected with rabies. These species include foxes, skunks, bats and raccoons. Cats are natural hunters so it makes sense that outside cats would come into contact with potentially rabid wildlife. Also, with the advent of suburban sprawl and new residential areas, cats are being exposed to larger numbers of displaced and potentially rabid raccoons.
How can cats pass rabies virus to human beings?
Cats infected with rabies are generally reclusive but they may attack human beings, even their owners, when disturbed. The virus is found in the saliva of infected cats. Rabies virus is most commonly transmitted to human beings through a bite from an infected cat. The virus can also enter the human body if the cat saliva enters a break in the skin or the mucous membranes.
The incubation period for the disease varies greatly. The virus spreads through the body to attack the central nervous system. Typically, one to three months lapse between the cat becoming infected, and the development of the first signs but that interval can be as short as a week or two, or as long as a year!
Clinical symptoms in cats primarily show up as a change in behavior. They may appear apprehensive, nervous or anxious. They may seek solitude or hide, or act unusually friendly and snuggle up with you, then suddenly bite. The cat may stop eating or drinking. This may be due to paralysis of the throat and jaw muscles. Cats may begin to salivate excessively since they can’t swallow. This paralysis spreads rapidly to all body parts. Once neurological symptoms are observed, death is rapid and most cats die within 7 days. In humans, this disease is also fatal. For this reason, rabies is considered to be THE most significant viral zoonosis. Another worrisome aspect of rabies is that some reports of animal transmission to people indicate that rabies virus may be shed into the saliva before the animal shows obvious behavioral changes—this makes this a very dangerous virus indeed!
How is rabies controlled?
Rabies is effectively 100% fatal once an unvaccinated animal develops signs, therefore prevention is extremely important. Stray cats should be handled by the local animal control. Any suspicious looking wild animal should be reported to animal control. However, the single most effective measure in the control of rabies is vaccination of your cats by a licensed veterinarian. Though not 100% effective, especially if the cat is heavily bitten around the head, the vaccine is considered one of the most effective vaccines on the market. Vaccination is the only way to assure the public that the animal has been properly protected.
Within a month after vaccination, peak antibody titer is achieved and the animal can be considered to be immunized. If a person is exposed, the wound should be immediately and thoroughly washed with soap and water, and physician and health authorities advised. Exposed people also undergo immediate post-exposure treatment with immunoglobulins, followed by a series of vaccines.
For further information about rabies contact your veterinarian.